Elephants Alive’s research has successfully demonstrated that elephants avoid trees that have a bee hive hung in them. But what is it about the bees that is causing the elephants to steer clear? Our studies continue with the next phase of bee research……
Over the past decade, extensive research has been carried out on a worldwide scale to investigate the usage of honeybees as a mitigation method for human-elephant conflict. Whilst elephants may be thick-skinned and the largest land-dwelling mammals, sensitive areas around their eyes and ears leave them vulnerable to the painful stings of the relatively tiny honeybees. As bizarre as this may sound, it is backed by thorough scientific studies focussing on various aspects of the elephant-honeybee relationship!
Pioneering research by Dr. Lucy King (Save the Elephants – Elephants and Bees Project) has shown that elephants display signs of uncertainty and fear when confronted with the sound of swarming honeybees, often moving away from these sounds at quite some pace. Furthermore, King and her colleagues have successfully used beehive fence-lines (beehives connected to one other by wires) around crop fields as a method of preventing elephants from crop raiding. Beehive fence-lines are now being used in various African and Asian countries where human-elephant conflict is of great concern. More recently in South Africa, research by Elephants Alive has found that beehives can be used as a successful mitigation method for protecting large trees from elephant impact in the Greater Kruger National Park.
Whilst studies have focused on elephant interactions with honeybee sounds and actual beehives, only suggestions and hypotheses have been made about the impact that the honeybee alarm pheromone may have on elephants. And it is worth investigating because of the elephants’ acute sense of smell! The honeybee alarm pheromone is comprised of a number compounds, and is produced by honeybees when threatened. Production of this pheromone by honeybee guards increases the aggression levels of the rest of the colony, leading to the honeybee attack response.
Whilst the manipulation of this pheromone by scientists can evoke attack responses from honeybees, it is unknown whether the pheromone can be used to deter elephants. Elephants Alive researchers have partnered with Professor Mark Wright (University of Hawaii at Manoa) and Transfrontier Africa to investigate the honeybee alarm pheromone’s potential in South Africa on both wild and semi-captive elephants. In Balule Private Nature Reserve, the researchers investigated whether socks containing the alarm pheromone SPLAT (Specialized Pheromone and Lure Application Technology) mixture could effectively deter elephants around waterholes. Elephant reactions to these socks were compared with reactions to control (unscented) socks. The results have been very positive and will soon be available in a scientifically published research article. The researchers, in collaboration with Human-Wildlife Solutions, will now turn their attention to semi-captive elephants at Camp Jabulani (Kapama Private Game Reserve) for in-depth investigations into elephants’ behavioural responses to the pheromone, as well as honeybee sounds, smells, and presence. The results from this experiment will help researchers use various aspects of honeybee biology in the search for peaceful solutions to human-elephant conflict. The research team are looking forward to commencing with the trials and thank Adine Roode and her staff at Camp Jabulani for their willingness to assist with this ground-breaking research.
Finally, we have had some much-needed rain after the terrible, prolonged drought over the past two years.
How do you tell people from other parts of the world how it feels when the heavens open? How intoxicating it is to watch and breathe in the aroma of millions of falling drops of mercy as they explode on the dust covered earth?
You cannot describe to anybody how it feels when a drought is broken. There are no words for soaked elephants crossing previously parched plains, or a red mud bathed elephant twisting his trunk with delight or entire herds of elephants entering dams on masse as if to make sure that the water is real.
We got the call from Mark Shaw, the Warden of Umbabat Private Nature Reserve, just after 05h00 who said a small elephant calf was seen wondering around Ingwelala camp on its own the night before. A search party was sent out by the Warden as lions were in the area but to no avail. I notified our elephant tracking team who had already left for the field looking for collared study animals.
After a while they reported that they had found the small diminutive and dehydrated female calf. Although she was grazing and browsing efficiently she was tiny and very vulnerable. The field team emptied all their water for the day into a cooler box where we usually store elephant faecal samples collected as part of our field routine, and presented this to the calf. Unafraid and overcome by thirst she slurped it all up. The Warden inspected the situation and decided that we could organise to capture her as she wouldn’t survive for long with the pride of lions in the area. Possibly she was the calf that was seen desperately trying to suckle on her dying mother a few weeks earlier. An attempt was made to rescue the mother but she died a few days later (Watch here).
Sister and brother team, Drs. Liezel (Provet) and Christiaan Steinmann (State vet) were soon on the scene and although the dart did not detonate entirely we managed to herd the calf into a web of caring hands where Liezel could easily administer a sedative intravenously. We loaded her into our trusted field vehicle called The Beast and rushed to Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) as Liezel didn’t want to top up the drug unnecessarily while we also didn’t wish for a sleeping elephant to wake up in our now cramped car!
Again a web of caring human hands received the precious cargo as she was taken to a bed of straw with heating lamps to keep her warm overnight for observation close to the semi-domesticated elephant herd at HESC. The herd of 14 elephants knew something was amiss and with soft rumbles that penetrated the moist night air they managed to comfort each other despite the human constructs that kept them apart. In the morning, Adine Roode, manager of Camp Jabulani, decided that the calf should be introduced to the other elephants which seemed to be her most pressing need. The acceptance was immediate and heart warming! Tokwe, the matriarch of the herd allowed the little calf to comfort feed. Temporal glands streaming, trumpets and rumbles filled the air as the elephants excitedly greeted the calf while human tears silently plopped to the ground. Tokwe’s daughter, Limpopo, couldn’t stop touching the little one and she was soon corralled amongst the pillared legs of all the females.
They set out into the bush with the grooms and all in tow. Like a swarm of bees caking around a queen, they never let the calf out of their sight. The bulls had to now move more to the periphery as the protective maternal instincts of the females kicked in. I watched with tear-filled eyes as the elephants moved onto the plains to feed for the day. The clouds in the sky dotted the expanse of blue space above them while the green flushing shrubs mirrored a landscape dotted with browsing food for the elephants. They slowed their pace to ensure that the calf could stay nettled amongst them. My heart drifted after their leafy foot prints in the sand while my thoughts wandered towards the latest statistics according to which we have already lost 30% of the savannah elephant population due to poaching in seven years. It may be time for us to change our conservation focus so that we never have to apologize for having compassion for an individual. I take courage from little Timisa, who means courageous in in Xitsonga (the local dialect). If we allow it then one elephant can make a difference and open a new world of thinking to us.
We would like to thank Mark Shaw for caring. Each and every party played their role from the Elephants Alive team members, the veterinarians, the provincial administrators for issuing the permits, to the wonderful staff at HESC. Adine Roode is thanked for never turning any animal in need away. The 14 elephants are thanked for leading the way. Last but not least Elephants Alive would like to thank Christopher Parker from the OAK Foundation for committing to start an elephant orphanage at HESC in view of the escalating elephant poaching which has moved southwards in recent years. Upon our request, he has also agreed to pay for the development of an elephant milk formula which is much needed for neonatal elephants. The aim will be to rewild the elephants, staying clear of breeding, petting or trading in keeping with our philosophy.